DEAD-box proteins catalyze ATP-driven, local structural changes in RNA or RNA-protein complexes (RNP) during which only few RNA base pairs are separated. It is unclear how duplex unwinding by DEAD-box proteins differs from unwinding by canonical helicases, which can separate many base pairs by directional and processive translocation on the nucleic acid, starting from a helical end. Here, we show that two different DEAD-box proteins, Ded1p and Mss116p, can unwind RNA duplexes from internal as well as terminal helical regions and act on RNA segments as small as two nucleotides flanked by DNA. The data indicate that duplex unwinding by DEAD-box proteins is based on local destabilization of RNA helical regions. No directional movement of the enzymes through the duplex is involved. We propose a three-step mechanism in which DEAD-box proteins unwind duplexes as "local strand separators." This unwinding mode is well-suited for local structural changes in complex RNA or RNP assemblies.